Learning “Fast and Furiously” with Karen Boss—Part 2

by Lisa Rogers

Following the runaway success of her picture book courses over the last year, Charlesbridge editor Karen Boss brings her amazing energy this fall to The Writers’ Loft with four workshops, a one-day class, and a four-week course.

The first two workshops focus on craft, the third on the publishing process from submission to publication, and the fourth on idea development. Then—fasten your seat belts—Karen offers a one-day Condensed Topical Thunder workshop, followed by Finding Your Thunder, a four-week deep study of picture books.

I was lucky enough to participate this past year in Karen’s two six-week courses. They were intense, packed with mentor texts that gave insight into my own work, and chock full of Karen’s real-world experience in choosing and editing manuscripts for the children’s picture book market.

I asked Karen about her offerings. I hope her answers will help you with the big question: how to choose which Karen Boss class to take? With so many choices, we couldn’t fit it all into one blog post. This is part 2—here’s part 1 if you missed it!

LR: You’ve got an incredible array of courses from which to choose, many of which involve studying mentor texts. How does breaking down a mentor text help writers?

KB: I have a master’s from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. I figured out at the end of my two years that I had read more than 1,000 books as a student. I realized that exposure to that many titles, writing about them, reading them, homing in on certain aspects, reading them more than once through different lenses, and discerning why I liked or didn’t like them was key to my ability to be successful as a children’s literature professional.

I think many writers worry that reading too many books or creating a mentor-text list might be dangerous—that they could accidentally steal ideas from others. (I know comedians feel strongly about this.) But how can someone write a good TV show if they’ve not kept up with what’s doing well in the market? Same with picture books, I think. Looking at the choices a writer made, how something could be done differently, how characters are developed, how page turns work, and more can really assist a writer in honing her craft. Finding Your Thunder this fall focuses on mentor texts. We’re going to look at more than 100 picture books in that four-week course.

LR: One of your workshops focuses on idea development. How is it that there continues to be room for fresh and new ideas? Are there any new ideas?

KB: Good question! I remember hearing a story on NPR about music a couple years ago asking: Can there be any new songs? And this TED Radio Hour about originality is pretty great: http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/321797073/what-is-original. The short answer is YES—there are always new ideas. I’m more fuzzy on the how, other than to say that I am always in awe of the sheer cleverness of my fellow humans, and everyone’s life experiences, brains, families, pets, understanding of the world, and favorite ice cream is different, so of course we would each create new and different stories, right? And even when stories are similar or the topic is the same, how one writer chooses to execute it could never be the same as how someone else would do it. Come on October 11 and let’s talk more about this one!

LR: What’s one essential for picture book writers to understand about the publishing process?

KB: When people in class ask questions like this, I often say, “There is no answer. If you asked 15 editors this question, you’d get 15 different answers.” (And if you asked them again on another day, you’d probably get another 15.) But I’m being cheeky. Today I say: It’s slower than you think it should be. Picture books take years to make. (And that doesn’t even count the years you took to write the manuscript and get declined and finally sell it. It’s terrible, I know!) The text has to be contracted and edited. An illustrator has to be found and contracted. And time is needed to sketch and revise (the same way you revised your text). And then the art has to be made. And then the designer does their magic. And then it goes to Asia for scanning, and printing, and shipping back to the U.S. on a boat. (A boat!) So the one essential that picture-book writers should practice is patience. We’ll talk about this in the October 4 workshop.

To learn more about the workshops and classes Karen Boss is offering or any other happenings, please go to The Writers’ Loft website.

Karen Boss is an associate editor at Charlesbridge, where she works on fiction and nonfiction picture books and middle-grade novels. She holds a MA in Children’s Literature from Simmons College and regularly acts as a mentor for their Writing for Children MFA program. Karen also has an MA in higher education administration and worked at colleges and in the nonprofit sector for 15 years. She’s currently working with Lee Bennett Hopkins, Jane Yolen, Nancy Bo Flood, Rich Michelson, and debut author Tami Charles. Her favorite children’s book is “The Trumpet of the Swan” by E.B. White, and she thinks that “Holes” by Louis Sachar is quite possibly the best thing ever written. In her free time, Karen saves her pennies so she can travel to a new country each year (recent trips include Ecuador, Portugal, and Colombia), and she often plans “Auntie Karen adventures” for her three nieces (Sonia, 9; Sage, 6; and Olive, 2.5).

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